The agenda of the papal voyage to the United StatesVatican City, April 5, 2008 (vaticans.org)– When, in mid-April, Benedict XVI lands at the military airport of Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, the United States will take the lead in the list of the countries most visited by the popes, tieing Poland for the number of visits, with nine, and Turkey for the number of popes who have visited, with three, following his predecessors Paul Vi and John Paul II.
The latter, a ceaseless traveler, made the rounds all over the United States. During his first visit, in 1979, he visited seven cities in six days, delivering 63 speeches. The more sedate Joseph Ratzinger, who also make a visit of seven days, will instead stop in only two places: Washington – where he will meet George W. Bush at the White House on April 16 – and New York. He will deliver just 11 speeches. But the mere announcement of at least two of these are already causing jitters, after the current pope showed the world in Regensburg to what daredevil extremes he is willing to go. These will be the speech on April 17, in Washington, to representatives of Judaism, Islam, and other religions, and the one on April 18, in New York, to the general assembly of the United Nations.
In Regensburg, Benedict XVI denounced as the chief errors of today's world its separation of faith from reason, of which he accused Islamism, and the loss of faith and reason, which he instead imputed to the dominant culture in Europe and America. It's a good bet that he will go even farther at the podium of the UN, and will offer the world a primer on peace founded upon natural law, on the inviolable rights engraved in the conscience of each person, but also written in the "universal declaration" that marks its 60th birthday in 2008.
This is an easy forecast to make, if one only looks at what the pope said last February 29, while receiving the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon. For Benedict XVI the United States is a model to be imitated by all. It is the country born and founded "on the self-evident truth that the Creator has endowed each human being with certain inalienable rights," among the first of which is liberty.
With this pope, the United States is no longer held up for scolding by the Vatican authorities. Until a few decades ago, it was tasked with being the temple of Calvinist capitalism, of social Darwinism, of the electric chair, with a hair trigger in every corner of the world.
Today these paradigms seem to have been set aside to a great extent. The Church of Rome vigorously contested the military attack on the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Even Benedict XVI. But it is not now pressing for the withdrawal of the soldiers. It wants them to remain there "on a peacekeeping mission," including the defense of the Christian minorities.
In any case, the general judgment on the United States has shifted to the positive, to the same extent that judgments on Europe have become more pessimistic. To ambassador Glendon, Benedict XVI said that he admires "the American people's historic appreciation of the role of religion in shaping public discourse," a role that in other places – read, Europe – is "contested in the name of a straitened understanding of political life." With the consequences that stem from this on the points that are most crucial to the Church, like "legal protection for God's gift of life from conception to natural death," marriage, the family.
The Church of Rome has more often found itself in harmony with the Republican presidents, from Reagan to Bush Sr. and Jr., than it has with the Democrat Clinton, precisely because of the greater dedication of the former to safeguarding life and promoting religious freedom in the world. In Cairo in 1994, and in Beijing in 1995, at the two international conferences convened by the United Nations on the demographic question and on women, both held during the Clinton presidency, the delegation of the Holy See fought tenaciously against the United States and Europe, which wanted to incentivize abortion in order to reduce births in poor countries.
And who led the Vatican team in Beijing? Mary Ann Glendon, a former feminist, a law professor at Harvard University later appointed by John Paul II as president of the pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and today a United States ambassador. Her speech in Beijing fell like a sharp sword: "Does the conference want to combat the violence suffered by women? Very well. Then let's take note of this. Among these forms of violence are mandatory birth control programs, forced sterilizations, pressure to abort, sex selection and the consequent destruction of female fetuses."
In a collection of her essays just released in Italy, published by Rubbettino, Mary Ann Glendon again criticizes what happened in Beijing and in the following years. She accuses rich countries of cutting off financial aid, preferring the shortcut of abortion and zero cost population curbs. Above all, she accuses the secular Western elites of replacing the "full, rich, balanced" language of the universal declaration on human rights with the "mediocre jargon" of individual desires without duties or responsibilities. Her indictment has been republished by "L'Osservatore Romano."
For these same reasons, on multiple occasions in recent years the Vatican authorities have criticized the UN and the European Union. This does not take away from the fact that the Holy See continues to trust in and support the United Nations as a peaceful means of solving international controversies.
The Holy See is present at the UN as a "permanent observer state." It cannot vote, but it has the right to speak and to reply. The campaign for its removal, orchestrated a few years ago by non-governmental organizations committed to population control, annoyed over the opposition from the Vatican, produced the opposite effect. In July of 2004, the UN general assembly unanimously approved a revolution that not only confirmed, but even reinforced the presence of the Holy See in the organization.
From the dais of the UN, Benedict XVI will speak to the entire world, in which Catholics are less than one sixth of the population. Not even in the United States are Catholics in the majority. They are about 70 million out of 300 million, 23.9 percent, according to a very recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted on a sample of 35,000 Americans. But they have a significant presence nonetheless, much more so than the Catholics in Italy, and they belong to a strongly Christian country, with rates of religious participation much higher than in Europe.
In the presidential elections of 2004, Catholics played no small role in the reelection of George W. Bush. But the members of the hierarchy did not tell them how to vote, nor will they do so in the upcoming elections. Pro-life Catholics are inclined to vote for the Republican John McCain, while Catholics in favor of peace and justice are for the Democrat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. The Church authorities appreciate in any case the fact that all of the candidates have given a prominent place to the religious dimension.
Because that's the way the United States is. It is at the vanguard of modernity, and at the same time is the most religious nation in the world. It is a model of separation between Church and state, at the same time is a country with a significant public role for the religions. The study by the Pew Forum has found that at the numbers of atheists and agnostics are very small, 1.6 and 2.4 percent respectively, in spite of the fact that they seem much more numerous and outspoken in the media.
But the most relevant results of the study is another one. It is the extremely high number of American citizens who pass from one religious confession to another, or who are "reborn" to a new spiritual life while remaining in the same religion.
There's no other nation in the world in which the religious market is so vibrant, and the competition so fierce. 44 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have changed their religious affiliation, some of them more than once, or have passed from unbelief to the faith, or vice versa.
Among the Protestant confessions, to which about half of Americans belong, a sharp decrease is underway among those of "liberal" orientation in matters of individual rights. But the "evangelical," puritan groups are increasing, some of which have strongly anti-papist traditions, but have now drawn closer to the Church of Rome in the name of a common battle in defense of life.
One out of three American Catholics who grew up in the Catholic Church have left it. But these losses are compensated by the acquisition of new converts and by the arrival of many Catholic immigrants from various countries, above all from Latin America.
This migratory to transplanting is of such proportions that it is changing the face of Catholicism in the United States. And Rome understands this very well, so much so that at the last consistory, on November 24, 2007, Benedict XVI made Daniel DiNardo a cardinal. DiNardo is the archbishop of Galveston and Houston in Texas, a diocese never before honored with the purple, but where the number of Catholics is on a dizzying increase, as it is another dioceses that are destinations for immigrants, for example Dallas, where there were 200,000 Catholics 20 years ago and more than a million now, most of them having come from Mexico.
If one also considers the fact that Mexico is the Latin American country in which the Catholic Church is most vigorous among young people as well, with an impressive blossoming of vocations to the priests and religious life, one can then understand another new development in Catholicism in the United States: the decrease in the average age of its members.
Among Catholics over the age of 60, the great majority are white, but among those from 18 to 40 years old, almost half are "Latinos," meaning that they have come from Mexico and other Latin American countries. These are fresh infusions that compensate for the abandonment of the Catholic Church on the part of young whites under the age of 30, the age group most extensively eroded by secularization.
In all of 2007, the "New York Times" put Benedict XVI on the front page only twice, compared to 25 times for John Paul II in the third year of his pontificate. But pope Ratzinger will make up ground with his upcoming voyage. The United States appears to him as very promising terrain for planting. The year after World Youth Day in 1993, the diocese of Denver recorded 2,000 new converts and in a percent rise in Mass attendance. Weary Catholic Europe should take a lesson.
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